Exploring a new place sometimes requires getting off the main roads and taking the scenic route. When I say the scenic route, I mean off-road. Detour off the main highway and safety of the tarmac and make your way down to the beach. I am on the Sunshine Coast, about to tackle Queensland's Great Beach Drive.
After a short ferry ride (A$7) from Tewantin, it's a five-minute drive to Teewah Beach. 4WD cars and trucks are lined up along the side of the road just before the 3rd cutting (vehicle access track to the beach going north). Their drivers are letting air out of the tyres. Richard from Noosa 2 Fraser 4WD Hire advises reducing air pressure down to around 20psi to increase grip in loose sand. Other than losing traction, cars with not enough ground clearance can also get stuck.
While reducing the tyre pressure, I recall a TV show I had seen where a couple driving across a desert get stuck in soft sand. They let air out but not enough, and after ditching the car, perish in the unforgiving hot sun. I am more afraid of explaining to Richard that I lost the car to the incoming tide than dying in the hot sun.
It is not surprising car rental companies usually frown upon driving off-road.
Let alone on the beach. If you get stuck in sand, the incoming tide will have no mercy. Then there is corrosion. Salt water, sand and metal cars don't mix together that well. Noosa 2 Fraser 4WD Hire is one of the few rental companies that does allow driving their vehicles on the beach.
The best time, no, the only time to attempt this is two hours either side of low tide.
Driving on the soft sand proves to be easier than I had expected. There are plenty of tracks scattered in the soft stuff but below the high-water mark the sand is hard and smooth.
Normal road rules apply on the beach and the speed limit is 80km/h reducing to 50km/h in the camping zone. Cars can easily travel more than 60km/h on the hard packed sand but need to watch out for inland water eroding channels called washouts in the sand.
Teewah beach stretches for 51km of beautiful off-white sands with bright orange cliffs up to 200m high. I see many fishermen and campers enjoying the good weather. Even though it is the weekend, the beach is so long that there is a large gap between groups.
It takes me about an hour and a half to reach the Leisha track at the northern end. This cuts across Double Island Point to Rainbow Beach where the surf is calmer and it's better swimming.
In the unfortunate event the car does get stranded, I have sand tracks and tow ropes in the back. Also there are plenty of cars going up and down the beach to lend a hand.
The only potential tricky parts I find are getting on and off the beach above the high-water mark.
The next day I leave the 4WD behind and hop in the saddle for some beach riding. I join a group of five with a mix of beginner and experienced riders. I am assigned Annie Oakley, a 6-year-old mare. Andrew points out that everyone is sitting on a $4000 saddle and $6000 worth of horse between their legs. But when you think about it, that's still cheaper than a car.
The narrow bush track down to Rainbow Beach is a great opportunity to acquaint oneself with the controls. The horses are quite familiar with this routine but scare easily with anything out of the ordinary. They have a very sensitive natural alarm system and round a bend, the lead horse suddenly stops. It has spotted something. Maybe a goanna or venomous snake. We're not even on the beach yet and there's some excitement. Turns out to be nothing more than a discarded tent sitting in some bushes, but it is enough to halt our progress momentarily.
Once we reach white sands, our posse spreads out as we enjoy a near-empty beach to ourselves.
Unlike cars, horses don't get stuck so no need to worry about tyre pressures or soft sand, and the best thing is the horse can venture right into the sea. They aren't as fast as the 4WD but because you're not worrying about the incoming tides, you can spend all day on the beach and enjoy the splendid scenery. Heck, they can even steer themselves.
Horses definitely have the romance factor over the 4WD too. Riding horseback off into the sunset is popular for beach weddings and movie endings.
Andrew and Helen from Rainbow Beach Horse Rides have been operating for only a few years but they are one of the most professional horse-riding operators I have encountered.
They are passionate about what they do and how they do it. They even spend their days off on a horse.
Whether you are on four wheels or four hooves, this is one of the most enjoyable and scenic places to get off the tarmac and traverse the sand.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Sunshine Coast Airport from July to October. One-way Economy Class fares start from $242. airnewzealand.co.nz